The Emmys Most Diverse Year Yet: An Interview with TV Academy Member Sharon Liggins

The Emmys 2010 Red Carpet

As Hollywood diversity made headlines this week – thanks to “Damonsplaining” on Project Greenlight and the latest Boxed In report – the 67th Annual Emmy Awards show on Sunday will represent a record number of diverse nominees, most notably among black actors who saw a 64% increase – 18 versus 11 — over the previous year.

The TV Academy celebrated this milestone in grand style a few weeks ago at its third Dynamic & Diverse event at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. The rooftop soiree drew about 350 industry guests, including actors Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-0), Garcelle Beauvais (Grimm), Louis Gossett, Jr. (Extant), Navid Negahban (Homeland), and American Crime supporting actor nominee Richard Cabral.

TV Academy member Sharon Liggins initiated the idea for Dynamic & Diverse shortly after the 2013 nominees were announced, as a means to celebrate the achievements of women, people of color and people with disabilities.

This year, among the nominees: Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) and Taraji P. Henson (Empire) are vying for an Emmy for lead actress in a drama. (No black actress has won in this category.) Black-ish star Anthony Anderson and Don Cheadle (House of Lies) are up for lead actor in a comedy.

And the recognition is spread across all scripted categories, from comedy (Black-ish, Getting On) to drama (How to Get Away With Murder, Orange is the New Black) to limited series and movies (American Crime, Bessie).

John Ridley (American Crime), Shelby Stone (Bessie), Dee Rees (Bessie), Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) and Rita McGhee (Empire) are among some of the nominees in the writing, producing, directing and costume design categories.

Days after the diversity event, I got on the phone with Liggins, an independent PR consultant and two-term member of the Academy’s Board of Governors, to talk about this banner year and the continued push for diversity in front of and behind the camera and in the executive ranks.

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn: Dynamic & Diverse has celebrated its third year – third time’s a charm?

Sharon Liggins: Yes! The goal every year has been to exceed the previous year’s achievement in terms of the number of people attending overall, the level of talent, the amount of talent and the Emmy nominees, specifically, because the event is to honor and celebrate the diverse Emmy nominees and create the awareness and the relevance of the Dynamic & Diverse event throughout the industry.

What prompted your idea for the event?

As long as I’ve been involved with the Television Academy on a variety of levels for ten years, I started off being a member of the Diversity Committee, then I co-chaired the Diversity Committee for two years. Our goal was always to have some kind of event to recognize, celebrate and bring awareness to the diverse folks in front of and behind the camera. We’d talk about it, then nothing ever happened.

Sharon Liggins Emmys TV Acedemy Board Member

But it wasn’t until the nominations came out in 2013. Kerry Washington was nominated for lead actress in a drama series for Scandal, and a light bulb went off in my head the day of the nominations – and then we had a board meeting the day after the nominations – that we should do something to highlight Kerry’s historic nomination. It was historic in that she was the first African American lead actress to be nominated in a drama since Cicely Tyson was nominated (in 1995 for Sweet Justice).

It was really a question of, ‘What can we do to celebrate Kerry’s historic nomination and all the other diverse nominees?’ This was the first year where there was a significant increase compared to 2012. So towards the end of the Governors’ meeting that night, I raised my hand and said, ‘We should do something as the Academy.’  The idea was immediately championed by Bruce Rosenbloom, the Academy’s chairman and CEO, and literally the next day we were moving forward with a planning committee to make it all happen.

How does this event help push diversity in front of and behind the camera?

On one hand it doesn’t. The TV Academy is a trade organization within the entertainment industry, so we’re not necessarily advocating policy changes. The Television Academy’s goal and mission is to represent the best in television, we’re not the NAACP or IMAGEN or other diversity organizations. Our role is to celebrate television excellence, and in that context we wanted to carve out a place for diverse excellence to be recognized.

In 2013, it was probably just seen as a one-off event, and then we had it in 2014 which had more talent and was better attended by the nominees – we did have Joe Morton who was a nominee for guest actor for Scandal, and ended up winning – and at the end of last year’s event, it was included permanently as part of the Emmy nominee productions that happen about a month leading up to the Emmy Awards.

Beyond the drinking and noshing and socializing, there was a lot of serious networking going on – people attending were genuinely wanting to connect and do business.

I think that’s just the natural progression of this year’s event being the biggest ever in terms of having mid-to-senior level network executives, studio executives, agents and managers attending. We had a lot more talent that were actually on-screen from the four major networks and cable networks.  So the business side of the industry and the creative side were literally in the room together, and it naturally fosters relationships – and particularly with people of color – we’re not necessarily all in the room together, except for conferences which are more segmented, and especially for television folks.

You had an idea, and now the Academy’s run with it. That’s got to be a good feeling.

It was my idea, but it’s certainly been a group effort and it is a partnership with SAG/AFTRA, as well as other supporters who are doing outreach to make it the success that it was this year. It’s amazing what it’s become, particularly the press coverage from this year’s event: Variety, an AP story; two items in People. YBF.com (Young Black and Fabulous), the black gossip website, ran a photo collection of the arrivals – and that’s very gratifying because it takes the Dynamic & Diverse event even beyond our entertainment community.

Afterwards I got so many calls and emails from people saying, ‘I’ve worked in entertainment for X-amount of years and there’s never been an event like this. Can’t wait ‘til next year’s event comes.’ And for people of color, there is not an event that celebrates our achievements in either film or television, so this is a unique event in that sense. As long as the diversity conversation in the industry continues, and as diversity on screen and behind the camera continues to expand, everybody benefits.

Emmys Diverstiy Event 2015

– Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

This article was written for The African Artists Association by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, a journalist, author and film artist. She recently completed co-writing her first feature film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, with Barrington Smith-Seetachitt. The Los Angeles cross-culture romance stars Navid Negahban who is set to produce with Janice and Barrington. Follow their process and progress at loversintheirrightmind.tumblr.com.